Hunger Journeys. HarperTrophy Canada
Maggie De Vries’ first young adult novel, Hunger Journeys, winner of the 2011 Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize, offers readers a vehicle for greater understanding of war’s impact on families. It is a novel about physical hunger, but also about the emotional hunger of a young woman: for friendship, love, and autonomy. Hunger Journeys is a coming-of-age story about Lena, a teenager who endures various hardships in German-occupied Holland during WWII. It also vividly demonstrates the gender roles and specific struggles of women (and children) in domestic spaces during wartime. The threats of starvation, sexual abuse, rape, violence, pregnancy, and even falling in love with the enemy, are realistic and pressing. Lena’s character, De Vries acknowledges, is loosely based on the life stories of her mother-in-law, Lin.
Lena’s story begins at home in Amsterdam, where she witnesses and experiences the daily challenges to feed the family, care for children, and still engage in normal activities such as spending time with friends. When Lena’s friend, Sarah, disappears along with the other Jews in town, Lena awakens to the injustice the war has brought, and to her own feelings of complicity. In an effort to assuage her guilt, Lena befriends Sofie, a new student who is more interested in boys and escaping her own family troubles than in doing schoolwork.
As food becomes scarce, Lena and her sister Margriet are sent into the rural areas nearby to beg for food. These “hunger journeys” are dangerous, and the young women who take them are vulnerable to theft, harassment, rape, and even death. When one of their bicycles is taken by soldiers, Margriet is forced to make the journeys alone—and Lena becomes frustrated and upset by her sister’s vulnerability, her mother’s pregnancy, her father’s selfishness, and her brother Piet’s involvement in the Resistance movement. This frustration prompts her to escape Amsterdam and her family’s expectations with her friend Sofie. They embark on a hunger journey to Almelo, a town close to the German border. But the realities of that journey and the dangers they encounter are far more frightening than expected. When the girls are caught trying to pose as Germans, they are helped by two young German soldiers—but their involvement with the men has consequences that neither of them expect. When the girls arrive in Almelo, they are forced into domestic service to pay for their keep and Lena is exposed to sexual harassment and later, resistance. Sofie also finds herself in trouble when she is caught with her German boyfriend, Uli. The ways in which the two girls handle their circumstances provides an opportunity for provocative discussion of morality, courage, loyalty, and personal responsibility in difficult situations.
De Vries convincingly portrays a young girl’s emotional response to the hardships of a war-torn life. The contrast of Lena’s moral and ethical convictions with Sofie’s desire to “snatch a little bit of hope, of warmth, right here in hell” through her relationship with Uli, provides an opportunity for meaningful exploration of complex relationships and moral decision making. Lena’s romantic interest in Albert, the German soldier that helped her, also creates turmoil for her because of his complicit role in the movement and murder of Jews, as well as his identity as a German, and thus, an enemy. Lena, unlike Sofie, is convinced that even in wartime she must hold to the values and morals that she has been taught. However, her emotions and desires continue to press her to explore how to trust her own judgement. Lena hungers for friendship, for love, and for truth and self-confidence; her story is as relevant today as in the past.
De Vries’ novel provides a meaningful contribution to the genre of Canadian war fiction. Discussions of the novel’s themes, especially in a classroom setting, may open up conversations about traditional gender roles, ethnic and racial prejudices, and the power of individuals to make a difference. It also offers an introduction to the study of the German occupation of the Netherlands. Although the story does not deal specifically with a Canadian context, the role of Canadian troops in the final liberation of Holland is also depicted. In Hunger Journeys, De Vries provides an insightful examination of divided loyalties, complex relationships, and personal responsibility—a perspective which could lead readers to a greater understanding of the plight of women and children in current global war zones, as well as insights into one’s responsibility to others in these situations.